When I think of the exemplary life that Pete Hamill led, I can’t help but recall the time I was strolling along the Upper West Side with my friend Tom on a sunny Sunday in 1989 and we ran into Pete.
He was coming down Broadway carrying a massive stack of newspapers — the thick Sunday versions of The Times, Post and Daily News, along with several magazines, which he had pinned against his side with his right arm.
I introduced him to Tom Donatelli, a friend from Oxford with whom I’d just shared a pleasant brunch. Four years earlier Tom and I spent time at the university’s Exeter College, where he was getting the equivalent of a master’s degree in theology — and impressed me as one of the smartest people I’d ever met.
How lucky, I thought, for this chance encounter with the other smartest person I knew.
They shook hands, sizing up one another like top contenders during pre-fight instructions, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, immediately started wailing on each other.
I don’t recall exactly how it started but it was truly a remarkable scene, two heavyweights hurling verbal haymakers in an epic, furious battle over how to pursue peace in the Middle East.
“You’re wrong about the goals of the Palestinians!” Pete hollered at Tom. “That’s not what they want at all!”
Since I myself wasn’t exactly certain what the Palestians wanted — other than statehood — I kept quiet, content to watch their heated fury.
Tom bared his teeth and jabbed a pointed finger at Pete’s nose. Pete, handicapped by his unwieldy pile of publications, kept trying to gesticulate with his left arm until he finally jammed the stack between his legs, pinning it with knees, which freed his upper limbs to flail passionately as he spoke. He reminded me of a fired-up Venetician using both hands to win an argument in St. Marks Square.
All I lacked was a chair and bowl of popcorn.
At one point I was tempted to break the tension by recounting the time I turned on a TV at an Israeli hotel near the Jordan river and saw NBA games being broadcast from across the border. Meaning you could watch Air Jordan on …. Air Jordan. But I accepted that any light-hearted contributions from me likely would not have been appreciated. This was serious stuff, and I was overmatched.
When the fire calmed, we agreed to take the debate inside.
“We ended up going to a diner,” Tom said to me Saturday. He remembered the conversation well and revealed that he’d been discussing it just the day before with his wife — more than three decades after the fact.
“We sat down and got coffee. I recall him taking exception to some of my opinions, which was fine with me. It was a funny, fortuitous meeting, and a lively conversation ensued.”
Later that day in 1989, after we three finally separated, I called Tom and asked what he thought. He thanked me, grateful for having met Pete and for the opportunity to match wits with such a spirited opponent. Then I called Pete. “Who was that nut?” he asked in outraged disbelief.
And there you had a difference. While Tom seemed to relish the battle on a geopoltical, academic plane, Pete took these issues to heart. He’d covered the war in Lebanon, and the puzzle of the Middle East involved deep convictions. When a stranger challenged him, he wasn’t about to walk away.
But perhaps the bigger takeaway was this: Pete, who gave so generously and demanded so much of himself, immersed himself in ideas. His mind danced with competing concepts related to power and drama, heartbreak and triumph, while he filled his day-to-day with what gave him joy: hosting friends, pondering the vicissitudes of the hometown he adored, hashing out uprisings in politics, sports, art, film and travel.
I’ve wondered if anyone was better read than Pete or knew more history. A romantic everyman who dropped out of high school and went to college on the GI bill in Mexico City couldn’t be stumped. I never mentioned a book I’d liked that he hadn’t read himself. On the contrary, it was Pete who constantly turned me on to new authors, writers like Irwin Shaw, who, I’ve come to believe, is one of the most underappreciated novelists of the last 100 years.
Once I told him I was struggling to get through “War and Peace,” though I really wanted to do so and felt obligated to finish the thing. He asked which translation I was reading and when I told him, he scoffed. “That one’s no good,” he said. “There’s this new guy, and he’s done a hip translation. You should try it.”
His insights on the craft of writing were spot-on.
“People who’ve never written don’t understand that a writer can be gazing out the window and he’s working,” he said. He noted that spending hours, or even a full day, trying to get a single sentence just right was not too much time to devote — and invariably worth the effort. Once he told me he liked a new assistant editor, a young woman who had just started at his publisher and was helping shape a novel he’d just turned in.
“We’re all sitting around in the office going over revisions and I said there was something I didn’t think worked,” he said. “This character walks in from out of the rain, takes off his raincoat and hurls it to the floor. The sound that it makes, I just couldn’t get it. We talked it over but nobody had any better ideas how to describe that sound.”
“So we decide to take a break, to go out to lunch. This young assistant says she has work to do and can’t join us. When we get back, she’s in the office. She’d found an old raincoat, soaked it wet in the bathroom sink and was throwing it on the ground.”
Bringing people together was another special talent of Pete’s.
He brought me along to meals with many of his closest friends, including Jack Newfield, Jose Torres, Gay Talese and Peter Maas. Our little book club — which columnist Mike McAlary once derided as “detention” — was anything but that for me. How often does a young person like myself get the chance to discuss the nuances of a novel with an author as accomplished as Richard Price?
Another time, Pete invited me and our friend David to stay with him at his farm in upstate Wallkill, New York. As we drove from the city, David and I got to talking about whether Pete — who had been married to his wife Fukiko for some years — stayed in touch with any of his exes, such as Jackie O or Shirley MacLaine or Linda Ronstadt. When we arrived Pete was in an expansive mood, watching his beloved black lab Gabo — named after novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez — run around on the grass and jump in his pond.
That night he took us on a walk around the property, going from the main house to an old barn he was converting into a giant library. He looked up toward the heavens and remarked, “I wonder if I shouldn’t get into some of this New Age shit.” David winked at me. Later, he said, “I bet Pete still holds a candle for Shirley.” I was less interested in that question than if Pete had started reading up on Buddhism or Hinduism.
I took it as a point of pride that after Pete nearly died and was holed up in his Tribeca apartment convalescing, I got the chance to take him out for strolls, pushing him in his wheelchair to the West Side highway and around Battery Park, marveling at all that had changed for the good in lower Manhattan. Then I learned of all these other people who did the same, including the legendary New York Post police reporter Larry Celona. I wasn’t aware that he and Pete even knew each other.
Pete was often hard to reach, and at times I was put off by that. But it wasn’t right to be greedy. He only had so much time, and had so much he wanted to accomplish. How was he able to help such an array of others while also sticking to a rigorous writing regimen? I began to see him as a modern-day Theodore Dreiser, the acclaimed novelist known for supporting a wide circle of author pals. Or Charles Dickens, who used to arrange for staged readings of scenes from his books, roping in friends and fellow scribes for roundtable brainstorming.
One of the last times I saw Pete I mentioned that I’d been in touch with the grandson of Diego Rivera and was exploring allegations of theft involving some of the best known Rivera paintings. He’d heard about the charges, gave me the phone number of a lawyer he thought could help, then pulled down a stack of books from his personal library — loaners to help me in my research.
Among them was his own book, “Diego Rivera,” which he published in 1990, three years after we quit our jobs at the Mexico City News, where I met Pete when he took over as editor. He and the famed muralist had one thing in common, other than their love of art. They both made the absolute most of their talent.
As human beings, however, they were worlds apart.
“He was a liar, a mythomaniac, an artificer,” Pete wrote of Rivera. “He was not always brave. His exuberant creativity was shared between his art and his public self. No artist wore so many masks of his own invention.”
Pete was genuine. He stripped away artifice. He wore no masks. I am not sure he ever gave a damn about his public self. Nor do I define his legacy by the books or columns he wrote. I see it in scenes, of the times he fostered conversations and connections, of the ways he gave of himself, nurturing friendships, nudging along careers, helping fellow scribes figure things out.
Of the day 31 years ago he spent two hours standing on the street, debating the Middle East with a friend of mine.
If that’s the measure of the man, he was a giant.